Review: Mafia 2

There's a bit early on in Mafia 2 where war veteran and budding crook Vito Scaletta tries to go straight. He takes some grunt work at the docks, just like his late old man, loading hefty wooden crates onto a truck bed. After a few minutes of player-controlled hauling, he abandons his short-lived foray into working stiffery permanently.

But after playing though the entirety of his criminal career, after seeing the gameplay and narrative drudgery he was in store for, it's hard to say for certain that he made the right choice.
%Gallery-97815% Mafia 2 is, to put it mildly, a tightly controlled experience, to an extent that may be a little shocking to those of us who've become acclimated to the freedom of most open world games. Like it or not, you're going to complete a pre-determined series of missions with no dillydallying along the way. Sure, you can drive anywhere you like in the gorgeously rendered Empire Bay, but you always know exactly where you're supposed to go next. In a year when we've explored Red Dead Redemption's vast plains chock-full of adventure, Mafia 2's structure feels restrictive at best and dull at worst.

Rigid linearity in an open-world game isn't a great conceptual starting point, but 2K Czech might have pulled it off if it'd had a perfectly honed experience to offer. Unfortunately, that's just not the case.

It doesn't feel like 2K Czech is making a point about the unpredictability of mafia life either. It just feels sloppy.

No matter how long he's in the mafia's service, Vito never seems to stop doing chores for people, whether that means driving bosses to the train station or selling cigarettes out of the back of a truck. Sure, he gets into a handful of gunfights, which really are thrilling thanks to satisfyingly destructible cover and a cool blend of classic gangster firearms and WW2 weapons. But he'll also spend way too much time in shallow block-counter-repeat fistfights or behind the wheel of a clunky automobile.

And there is a lot of driving. Most every mission is framed by a long drive to a start point and a longer drive home after the job is done. Usually, there's some driving mid-mission as well. The problem's compounded when you have to repeat long driving sections thanks to checkpoints that are so unforgivingly infrequent it seems silly to even refer to them as such. Worse, this is the late 40s and early 50s, so you'll only rarely find a car that's fun to drive. Did I mention that you have to keep a "speed limiter" turned on to avoid being pulled over by the cops? It may be authentic, but it's about the furthest thing from fun.

Though there are some affecting moments late in the story of Vito's rise and fall, it's nothing you haven't heard before. Characters are so generic and interchangeable it renders large chunks of the story nigh impossible to follow. It's like trying to find a continuous narrative thread in an AFI special titled "Scenes from 100 Pretty OK Mafia Movies." The problem might have been alleviated if other ethnic groups like the Irish and Chinese were tapped for actual characters rather than just targets for eradication and racist scorn.

Who are these guys? ... Oh, I was hoping you knew.

The story is in no way supported by the threadbare metagame of Mafia 2. Housing can't be purchased and is instead given and taken away at unpredictable moments. You can spend Vito's blood money on souping up your cars, but you're so frequently forced to take someone else's ride on a mission that you won't see much real benefit from your investment. You'll never need the gun stores, what with all the weaponry littering the ground in every mission. In the end, you're effectively in the mafia to be able to buy lots of new clothes, which puts mass murderer Vito on ... well, let's call it shaky ethical ground, even for a mobster.

You'll never have the sense that the frequently dull crimes Vito commits help him advance his power. Rather you seem to just be propelling him from paydays to misfortunes and back again in a pinball game he has little control over. It doesn't feel like 2K Czech is making a point about the unpredictability of mafia life either. It feels sloppy.

It would be a far easier game to dismiss if the world Vito inhabited weren't such a constant joy to spend time in. The cheerful period advertising and music as well as the spotless architecture combine to form a sense of optimism that's simultaneously nostalgic and eerie when juxtaposed with the mafia violence. What's really heartbreaking is that you're never given any reason to explore this vibrant world that has all the interactivity of a Disneyland attraction's backdrop.

I loved the setting enough that I can't tell you to avoid Mafia 2 and feel good about it, and my score reflects that. While there's not much to crow about here in terms of story or action, there were moments when the city and the music all gelled together that were downright transportive, and it'd be a shame to miss out on them.

Then again, when the credits roll, it's hard not to wonder if Vito might have been just as well off staying at the docks, forsaking the occasionally enjoyable (though more commonly dull) chores of living as a mafioso for the predictability of the docks. At least then he would have had the weekends off to actually explore the incredible city right in front of his face.

And there would have been way less driving.

This review is based on the 360 retail version of Mafia 2 provided by 2K Games. We also tested the PS3 version and found that though it had slightly less graphical fidelity, the gameplay was identical. The graphical differences were not enough to affect the overall score.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.